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Internet Tracking: Should You Be Concerned About It?

Published on Apr 19, 2013 at 7:50 pm in Tech Trends, Tennessean Articles.

We all know that when we’re online, we’re being tracked. A Keynote Systems survey from last year found that 86 percent of the leading 269 websites in news, finance, travel and retail tracked users’ Web habits and gave that information to third parties.

Internet tracking is an issue that many of us don’t fully understand, and it’s an issue that more people should be concerned about.

For example, if you’re browsing your Facebook page and then close the page without logging out, most people don’t know that Facebook continues to track your Web-browsing history.

Facebook has publicly acknowledged that it keeps a 90-day running log of websites its more than 1 billion users have visited. It also tracks where nonmembers go who land on a Facebook page for any reason.

Facebook, and other businesses, advertisers and interested parties such as analytics companies use cookie-tracking technology to monitor your behavior as you move around the Web. Increasingly, companies are also using HTML5’s local storage feature, which stores cookies on your hard drive. These are harder to discover and block, and are not removed when you delete the cookies on your browser.

Even if you know that businesses such as Facebook follow your every virtual move, do you know what the company can do with the information that it gathers? Unless you read Facebook’s end-user license agreement (EULA), you likely don’t know what rights the company has with your information.

Individuals routinely accept EULAs without taking the time to read them. It’s such a widespread problem that the Comedy Central television show “South Park” devoted an entire episode in 2011 to what happens to the character Kyle when he accepts the latest iTunes EULA without reading it.

In 2005, the software company PC Pitstop added a clause into its EULA that offered $1,000 to anyone who contacted the company. It took five months and PC Pitstop added 3,000 clients before one of them called about the prize. The moral of this story: It pays to read EULAs.

The other side of the internet-tracking issue involves the government, specifically the FBI and NSA, who routinely collect and monitor information about internet activity in the name of national security. A seemingly benign, yet telling, statistic is that the Library of Congress is working to archive more than 170 billion tweets.

One could make the argument that “If I’m not doing anything wrong, I don’t have anything to worry about.” The problem is that once, as a society, we have conceded all privacy on the internet, we will never get it back. And internet privacy is still an issue that a majority of consumers would prefer to keep. In 2013, the software and IT firm Ovum’s Consumer Insights survey found that 66 percent of consumers would block tracking by a search engine if they could.

That’s one reason we need to fight laws such as Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act — previously proposed legislation designed to help government agencies and businesses share “cyber threat information” — and support organizations such as The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit working to protect fundamental rights regardless of technology.

As an internet user, here are a few things you can do to protect your privacy online.

  1. Read EULAs before accepting them.
  2. Set your browser to privacy or incognito mode whenever possible.
  3. Limit how your information is shared. Some internet companies, including Facebook and Google, provide settings that allow this.
  4. Stay educated on the internet privacy issue. One way to learn more about this subject is to read the Wall Street Journal’s series “What They Know,” which has been covering technology and privacy since 2010. You can learn more by following them on Twitter @WhatTheyKnow.

This post also appeared in The Tennessean, where Concept Technology has a bi-weekly feature in the Business section.